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He battles Hillsborough County and gets award for it

Dave Brown, who today receives the Moral Courage Award,  demonstrates a backflow valve he rigged at the water meter of his Sun City Center home. He says installing the devices, intended to protect the water supply, are too costly. He fought the county over rules for them, and the rules were changed.

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times

Dave Brown, who today receives the Moral Courage Award, demonstrates a backflow valve he rigged at the water meter of his Sun City Center home. He says installing the devices, intended to protect the water supply, are too costly. He fought the county over rules for them, and the rules were changed.

TAMPA — Dave Brown applies a little science to fighting city hall, or in his case, Hillsborough County Center.

"You know how geology works?" he asks. "Pressure and time."

Brown, 70, has exerted pressure over time at County Center with the relentless push of an advancing glacier. His advocacy has helped thousands of home­owners save money on their property insurance and future lawn-watering costs.

County commissioners will recognize the Sun City Center retiree today with this year's Moral Courage Award. The award celebrates residents who fight government to better the community.

It's the last year before the award is renamed after conservative crusader Ralph Hughes.

"It's a great honor to join the list of recipients who have faced opposition from the county and then persevered to do good," Brown said.

Brown is the son of a West Virginia Methodist preacher. His mother wrote "paid under protest" on monthly water bills.

"I think I get my crusading from my mother," he said.

He retired to Sun City Center at the age of 55 after years in computer programming for the likes of Random House Publishing. Today he's an inventor, trying to solve why fast-traveling cars use exponentially more gas than slow-moving ones.

His battles with the county have been more successful so far.

Brown began his journey from neighborhood activist to County Center gadfly in 2005. The county was updating decades-old maps that depict who lives in a potential flood zone.

Surprise: The first drafts showed thousands of homes previously considered high and dry were at risk of flooding in a big storm. At stake: Those with the unlucky distinction would have to buy flood insurance, costing hundreds of dollars each year.

From his back porch overlooking Middle Lake, Brown saw inconsistency. One home got the soggy tag while another next door did not.

Brown led his neighbors in a closer look. They found dozens of cases in which back yards were susceptible to flooding, but not the homes, a distinction the county had not made.

More than 1,000 homes escaped the boggy badge.

"He definitely rallied the community," said Eugene Henry, the county's hazard mitigation manager, who oversaw the mapmaking. "It's rare when you see residents come out and really help with the process."

As his map quest wound down, Brown began hearing from residents on another matter. It involved a county mandate that residents with sprinkler systems using ponds or shallow wells install expensive devices to prevent them from contaminating drinking water.

The rule had been on the books since 1993. But it was seldom enforced unless someone complained that their water tasted funny, which would bring the county inspectors.

That started happening with some regularity in Sun City Center and nearby Apollo Beach. So Brown began studying the issue, filing public records requests and dashing off predawn e-mails.

"He's got an intellect that helps him zero in on things that are tedious and technical," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who represents southern Hillsborough. "I've always paid attention to him."

Brown complained about the cost of the devices — between $400 and $600 to have a private plumber install one. The above-ground brass fixtures are unsightly and can easily be stolen for scrap. Cheaper, below-ground devices would suffice.

The county rule was overkill, he argued. "It is so far-fetched that in the history of the county there has only been one documented instance of backflow contamination," Brown said.

What's more, the above-ground devices could enable contamination by pranksters or those with worse intentions. A demonstration on his Web site,, landed him a visit from two homeland security investigators with the FBI.

Undaunted, Brown remained a fixture at County Commission meetings. That board ultimately agreed to change the rules in the future. As part of a planned upgrade to water lines, the county will create a program that will let residents pay for the devices in installments.

The county will also take over yearly inspections of the devices — which costs $50 or more — and replace them for free if they break.

Officials with the county Water Resource Services Department tipped their hat to Brown, even if they say he overstated his case at times. They took umbrage with his suggestions that they were in cahoots with plumbers.

The county has stopped issuing citations while the state responds to complaints from several county governments that have raised some of the same concerns as Brown.

In other words, the dispute isn't finished.

"So I'll keep the pressure on," Brown said.

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

He battles Hillsborough County and gets award for it 10/14/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 17, 2008 6:16pm]
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